Gilgit-Baltistan's Literacy Rate Under Threat Due To Poor Internet Connectivity

Students residing in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir have protested against a lack of capable internet facilities for the past month. However, their voices seldom reach the mainstream media. Their voices are drowned by poor internet connection and lack of connectivity.

Residents of Gilgit-Baltistan are used to seeing one bar on the signal indicators of their phones. During normal circumstances, the residents adopted a lifestyle that would not require frequent use of the internet. However, the post-Covid-19 situation where every form of communication is virtual poses a conundrum.

Ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced, many universities have utilised online platforms to continue classes. These online platforms require a steady internet connection, which Gilgit-Baltistan cannot access due to unstable internet connection.

A fellow student explained that to download one PDF document, they had to travel 20 kilometres to find a spot with sufficient internet signals. The GB region has repeatedly made headlines for having the largest literacy rate. If the same connectivity issues continue, this achievement might be in grave threat.

Dr. Mertin Reglitz published the findings of his study regarding internet usage in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. He stated, "Internet access is no luxury, but instead a moral human right and everyone should have unmonitored and uncensored access to this global medium—provided free of charge for those unable to afford it."

In this day and age, the internet assists in building a meaningful influence. Modern technologies have resulted in people being heavily dependent on the internet to exercise their freedoms and liberties. Most of the political debates occur online; the world is often made aware of government decisions only through online platforms.

Internet ensures that people are actively able to partake in decisions undertaken by their governments. Lack of this facility also hinders the exercise of other freedoms like speech and expression. People of Gilgit-Baltistan have repeatedly voiced their grievances regarding the unfair treatment subjected to their province.

Despite being one of the most popular tourist attractions and generating hefty sums of money through the tourism industry, the region still lacks basic facilities.

Farhatullah Babar, the PPP's ex-senator, stated his concern in a tweet, "It's hypocritical to lament and protest the closing down of internet in Indian Kashmir while doing nothing to provide it in merged tribal districts, GB and parts of Balochistan."

In 1976, then-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto happened to be on an official visit to Gilgit and Kashmir. Bhutto was annoyed upon being cut off from the rest of the world since Kashmir and Gilgit were not on the phone grid. Bhutto sought help from the military in attempts to resolve communication troubles in the northern regions of Pakistan. The military came forward to help, and Special Communication Organization (SCO) was established in 1976 to provide internet access to areas of Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir.

To this day, SCO maintains a monopoly in providing telecom services to the region.

Official reports show that out of 7 million people in the area, 4.93 million are phone subscribers in Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir. The residents have urged the opening of private service providers due to the painfully slow speed of services provided by the SCO. Those skeptical of services supplied by SCO agree that competition from private service providers will compel SCO to offer better services throughout the region.

Critics have voiced allegations stating that SCO hampers the entry of private providers in the area through litigation. SCO assured the residents that they do not hinder operations by private providers. Private providers are hesitant upon providing services to Gilgit Baltistan due to a limited number of consumers.

When these concerns were brought to the IT department's notice, Amin Ul Haque, Pakistan's minister for Information and Technology, stated that "Around 35 percent of Pakistan lacks internet infrastructure. There is an urban and rural divide. Most private companies invest in urban towns for commercial reasons and benefits. They refrain from investing in rural and far-flung areas."

Sector Commander SCO Col. Saqib Iqbal has assured citizens that all possible steps are being taken by SCO to ensure improved connectivity and coverage. He also stated that Gilgit Baltistan had been linked with Pak-China Fibre Optic Cable for better speed. To counter the problems being faced in online classes, special centres in all districts are being established to provide these students with internet facilities.